My uncle and the USSR

THE MARXIST SOCIETY of the University of East Anglia had just held a meeting around it, so we were told by someone working in the Sainsbury Centre for Visual Arts on the university campus in Norwich. The object around which the political gathering was held is a 35 feet high model of a structure that was never built full size. The Russian architect Vladimir Tatlin (1885-1953) had planned to build a futuristic tower in Petrograd (aka ‘Leningrad’ and ‘St Petersburgh’), an example of Constructivism. The tower, which was to have been 1300 feet high, was planned to celebrate and house The Comintern (3rd International). Hoping to rival Paris’s Eiffel Tower and to symbolise the modernity of Soviet Russia, the tower was never built.

Model of Tatlin’s tower with the Sainsbury Centre behind it

Sometime, back in the early 1970s, it was decided to construct a model of the Tatlin Tower near the Hayward Gallery on London’s South Bank. This was not a simple task because the structure is complex, and proper detailed blueprints were unavailable. To make a model of the Tatlin Tower that was faithful to the designer’s original idea, and which would not topple over, the services of a structural engineer were required.  My uncle Sven, who worked for the firm of Felix Samuely and Partners, proved to be the man for the job. Working with the project’s director, Jeremy Dixon, my uncle had to unravel the plans of the structure using photographs of a 17-foot model of the tower that Tatlin had created in 1920 and a few existing images of plans that Tatlin had prepared. There were inconsistencies between Tatlin’s plans and the model produced in 1920. In 1971, Dixon:

“…built small models in balsawood to get it right, and he worked with Sven Rindl of consulting engineer Felix J Samuely & Partners, who generated detailed freehand drawings as they talked” (quoted from “Blueprint”, December 2011)

Dixon wrote about this in Sven’s obituary as follows:

“I particularly remember working with him on the reconstruction of the remarkable tower that Vladimir Tatlin produced as a monument to the Third International, the communist organisation founded in 1919, for the Art in Revolution exhibition at the Hayward Gallery in 1971. The project required us to go back to first principles to reinvent its extraordinary geometry and structure.

Sven would sit listening and commenting during our complex voyage of discovery, and at the same time he would be drawing. These drawings would be remarkable, elegant, three-dimensional sketches straight off the sketch pad, finished and complete. They were graphic works of art as well as documentation of engineering ideas.”

(https://www.theguardian.com/news/2007/apr/30/obituaries.mainsection)

The model was built with timber inside the Hayward Gallery before being exhibited outside it in 1971 as part of an exhibition called “Art in Revolution: Soviet Art and Design since 1917”.

Forty years later in 2011, another model of the Tatlin Tower was produced, this time made of a more durable material, steel. Once again, the project was overseen by Jeremy Dixon. The completed model was first displayed in the courtyard of London’s Royal Academy. In an advance notice of the project (www.architectsjournal.co.uk/archive/ra-unveils-tatlins-tower), my uncle, who had died in 2007, was given a prominent mention:

“The 10.5m high steel structure in the Annenberg Courtyard was designed by architects Jeremy Dixon of Dixon Jones Architects, Christopher Cross, Christopher Woodward and engineer Sven Rindl. The tower will form part of the Royal Academy’s forthcoming exhibition, Building the Revolution: Soviet Art and Architecture 1915-1935 which opens on 29 October 2011.”

I remember going to view the model and then seeing a small exhibition about it and its construction. The exhibition, which was held inside the Royal Academy, included images of some of the beautifully drawn plans and diagrams created by my uncle.

The steel model of the Tatlin Tower, which was exhibited at the Royal Academy in 2011, has been lent to the Sainsbury Centre by the academy. Painted in red, this model of an experiment in futuristic architecture stands outside and close to the magnificent building that houses the Centre. The edifice, which is now over 40 years old, but looks like new, was designed by the architects Norman Foster and Wendy Cheesman.

We had no idea that there was a model of Tatlin’s tower next to the Sainsbury Centre when we visited it in September 2021. My wife and I were pleased to see this reminder of a much-missed relative whom we both loved dearly.

Calling the world

WHEN I WAS A CHILD, the family possessed a radio, which could receive long wave, medium wave, and short-wave signals. It was made by Pye, contained in a dark brown wooden cabinet, and took several minutes to ‘warm up’ before anything could be heard from it. It was faced with glass screen behind which there was a list of radio stations and a vertical cursor that could be moved across the list to tune into different stations. The stations listed were, to my young mind, quite exotic. They included places such as Berlin, Budapest, Beromunster, Moscow, Prague, Monte-Carlo, Leipzig, Hilversum, Vienna, Sofia, Cairo, and Luxembourg. One of the places on the tuning screen sounded far less exotic to me: Daventry. I knew that this place was somewhere in the English Midlands, and that gave it less appeal to me than places further afield and across the sea.

Recently, we spent a couple of nights near Rugby in Warwickshire. After leaving it to travel eastwards, we noticed that we would be passing through Daventry, and decided to stop there for breakfast. Prior to our arrival in that small town in Northamptonshire, I believed that it would turn out to be a place of little interest apart from the fact that I remembered having seen its name on our old radio back home in the early 1960s. How wrong I was to have pre-judged Daventry so harshly.

We parked next to a modern shopping centre, attractively arranged around an open space in which people were enjoying refreshments at outdoor tables and chairs. This contemporary shopping precinct is close to the High Street, which runs from Market Square to Tavern Lane. This thoroughfare is rich in historic buildings.

Overlooking Market Square is the former Daventry Moot Hall, an 18th century building, and beyond it on a slight elevation is the Holy Cross Church. This neo-classical style church was built between 1752 and 1758 to the design of David Hiorne (1715-1758) of Warwick. Not only does it resemble London’s St Martin-in-the-Fields, but on a smaller scale (and with a far smaller portico), but also many churches built by the British in India during the 18th and 19th centuries. Seeing the church in Daventry reminded me of the far larger St John’s Church in central Calcutta and the Danish church at Serampore on the River Hooghly. Unfortunately, the church in Daventry was not open when we visited it.

At the other end of the High Street, where it continues as the narrower Tavern Lane, there is a curious building with gothic revival features and crenellations. We asked an elderly man about the building and he told us that it used to be the BBC Club. It was then that I remembered that Daventry had connections with radio broadcasting. I recalled seeing the place’s name on our old radio at our home in northwest London. Our informant reminded us that for many years the transmitters near Daventry carried news and other broadcasts from Britain to the rest of the world.

On the 27th of July 1925 at 730 pm, the BBC began broadcasting from its new station at Daventry. At first, these transmissions could be received on crystal radio sets within a 250-mile radius of a circle with Daventry at its centre. Soon after this, broadcasts could be received far further afield. This was further augmented when the BBC installed much more powerful transmitters in about 1927. By the end of WW2, Daventry was transmitting the ‘highbrow’ Third Programme (now, ‘Radio 3’) broadcasts.

In December 1932, Daventry began transmitting programmes to a world-wide audience on the Empire Service. As the threat of war increased during the 1930s, Daventry started transmitting regional services such as The Arabic Service (in Arabic) and The Latin American Service (in Spanish). After WW2 broke out, there were broadcasts in many other foreign languages. Some monitoring of foreign broadcasts was also carried out in Daventry.

During the Cold War that followed the end of WW2, Daventry was involved in the transmission of programmes to people living on the Soviet side of the so-called Iron Curtain. Until its closure in 1992, the radio station and its transmitters at Daventry were continually updated. One of several reasons for its closure was the end of the Cold War following Gorbachev’s leadership of the USSR and the fall of the Berlin Wall.

Now, returning to the gothic revival building at the end of Daventry’s High Street, here is what Norman Tomalin, who worked at Daventry and has written a history of its radio station (www.bbceng.info/Books/dx-world/dx-world.htm), has to say about it:

“For the many thousands of BBC staff who briefly came to Daventry, the BBC Club … was home from home. It provided a central cosy meeting place, a break from the digs, a bar, billiards, table tennis, and photographic rooms and on the top floor, pride of place, a much treasured amateur radio transmitter. Call sign 5XX”

‘5XX’ was the call sign of the first transmitter at Daventry. It was superseded by another ‘5GB’ in 1927.

Our elderly informant told us that he remembered that broadcasts from his hometown used to begin with the words: “Daventry Calling The World”. In his book “Daventry Calling”, Tomalin wrote that the very first broadcast from Daventry began with the words: “Daventry Calling”, for back in 1927, it was not the world that could receive the programmes, only people in the UK.

I wonder how many of the people who listened to broadcasts from Daventry all over the world had any idea where the town was and if they did, did they wonder if it was as great a city as many of the others that appeared on radio tuning dials.

Changing frontiers

I HAVE ALWAYS ENJOYED browsing the shelves and piles of books in second-hand/antiquarian bookshops. During my adolescence in the 1960s, I bought many old travel guidebooks, such as were published before WW2 by the likes of Baedeker, Michelin, Murray, and similar. These items were not highly valued by collectors in the ’60s and were very reasonably priced. This was just as well because my spending power was not great at that time. My self-imposed rule was that I would not buy anything priced over £1 (Sterling). One of my prized purchases in that time was a pre-WW1 Baedeker’s guide to Egypt. I paid six shillings (30 pence) for this already rare edition in the second-hand department of Dillon’s university bookshop, which faces the Engineering Department of University College London. This shop is now a branch of the Waterstones chain of booksellers.

Most of the bookshops that I visited regularly were in or near Hampstead, which in the 1960s had at least eight second-hand booksellers. There was one shop that I visited occasionally on the corner of Fleet and Agincourt Roads. Once I entered it and found a copy of Murray’s Handbook to Northern Germany, which was published in the late 1880s. I was fascinated by this book which described Germany long before it was divided into East and West Germany, which is how it was in the 1960s. It also covered parts of the USSR (e.g. Kaliningrad, once ‘Königsberg’) and of Poland (e.g. Danzig, now ‘Gdansk’) that were formerly parts of the German Empire.  I looked inside its cover to discover its price. My heart sank. It was priced at one pound and ten shillings (£1.50). It was well beyond my budget. I could not decide whether I should break my £1 rule … only this once, but I did not. Reluctantly, I left the book behind in the shop. I had never seen a copy of this book before, and as I walked away, I wondered whether I would ever see another.

When on foreign travels with my parents, I went into second-hand bookshops and discovered some treasures, which I could afford. For example, in Madrid, I picked up several Michelin guides that had been published before WW1 when motoring was in its infancy. In Italy, which we visited annually during my childhood, I acquired several guides published before WW2 and during Mussolini’s era by the Touring Club Italia (‘TCI’). Some of these covered places that had been parts of Mussolini’s empire, such as Libya and Somalia. One TCI guide covered Friuli-Venezia Giulia, when large parts of what was to become western Slovenia were under Italian rule and the Adriatic coast as far as Rijeka was also part of Italy. This guide also included the Adriatic town of Zadar in Croatia, which was the Italian enclave, called ‘Zara’, before WW2. One treasure, which was subsidised by my parents, was the TCI guide to Greece, which was published just prior to the Italians’ abortive invasion of Greece. My copy includes notes added by its former owner, an Italian soldier. Interestingly, he had traced his route into northern Greece on the book’s map. From this, it was evident that he had travelled through central Albania before entering Greece.

In the 1980s, I was still avidly collecting old books including travel guidebooks. From 1982, when I had passed my driving test and began owning cars, I used to drive to see friends all over the UK and elsewhere. Often, I visited friends in Cornwall. My route, which tended to avoid motorways, took me through many small towns, all of which I explored with a view to discovering second-hand bookshops. Honiton in Devon used to contain several well-stocked antiquarian booksellers. On one trip I entered one of them at the bottom of a hill at the western end of the town and made an exciting discovery. Yes, you have probably guessed it already. In that shop, I found another copy of the old Murray’s guide to Northern Germany. Nervously, I looked for its price. By now, I had abandoned the idea of limiting my spend to £1, which in the 1980s would have been insufficient to buy any of the old guidebooks that attracted my interest. The volume I found was £7, which was remarkably good value in the 1980s. I snapped it up and paid for it with pleasure.

Nowadays, if I see an out-of-print book that interests me, I seize the opportunity to buy it, if, after checking the price on-line, it is not outrageously costly.

Finally, whilst talking about old guidebooks, I must mention an artwork created for me by the lady who would eventually marry me. Long before we were wed, she knew of my collection of guidebooks and was also a keen amateur potter. One day, she presented me with a wonderful gift. It was a box made of fired clay, which was shaped to look like a row of Baedeker guidebooks. This still occupies a prominent position on one of our many overcrowded bookshelves.

Maxim and Ivy: to Russia with love

MEIR HENOCH WALLACH-FINKELSTEIN (1876-1951) is better known as Maxim Maximovich Litvinov. A Bolshevik revolutionary, he became an important Soviet diplomat. In 1930, Stalin appointed him People’s Commissar for Foreign Affairs. Earlier on, shortly after the 1917 Russian Revolution, Maxim was sent to London as the Soviet government’s plenipotentiary representative in Great Britain. While in London, he met and married the writer Ivy (née Low; 1889-1977). I have recently discovered that their lives partially overlapped with mine, not temporally but geographically.

BLOG IVY 5

Ivy was living in London’s Hampstead when she and Maxim were courting. They had met in about 1918 at the home of Dr David Eder (1865-1936), a Zionist socialist and a pioneer of psychoanalysis in Britain. David, whom Ivy regarded as a father figure, and his family lived in Golders Green (actually, in Hampstead Garden Suburb at 103 Hampstead Way, not far from our family home).  According to Ivy’s biographer John Carswell (in his book “The Exile: Ivy Litvinov”):

“Over tea in the Express Dairy in Heath Street where they often met, Ivy helped Maxim to improve his English – throughout her life she adored improving people’s English – and she did more: she guided him in reading English literature.”

Today, the building that used to house the Express Dairy in Heath Street is a branch of the Tesco supermarket empire. However, the building still bears the name ‘Express Dairy’ and the date 1889, the year that Ivy was born.

Ivy’s biographer John Carswell (1918-1997) was the son of one of Ivy’s closest friends, the writer and journalist Catherine Carswell (1879-1946). Ivy met Catherine, a close friend of the writer DH Lawrence who lived in Hampstead, after she had written a favourable review of Ivy’s novel “Growing Pains”, which was published in 1913. Catherine lived in Hampstead at Holly Mount. To be close to her friend, Ivy moved to Hampstead. John, who was born at Hollybush House in Holly Hill, met Ivy several times and has written a good account of her life. It reads well and is extremely informative not only about Ivy but also about her husband.

Ivy and Maxim moved to Russia with their two young children in about 1920 and lived there, with small occasional breaks, until the late 1950s. One of these breaks was when Maxim was appointed Soviet Ambassador to the USA between 1941 and 1943. Her stay in the USSR was also punctuated by short holidays abroad. Living in the USSR, Ivy continued her writing as well as teaching English. Long before he died, Maxim fell out of favour with Stalin and lived in fear of arrest and probable execution. However, he died of natural causes in 1951, just in time to miss Stalin’s last great, but unfulfilled, plan, the anti-Semitic ‘Doctors’ Plot’. On his deathbed, he said to Ivy:

“Englishwoman, go home”.

It was not until 1960 that Ivy did return to England.  But, in 1961, she returned to the USSR, where she remained a pensioned widow until July 1972, when she returned to the UK. She settled in Hove, where she lived the rest of her life. Until her dying day, Ivy wrote, published, and was actively involved with the literary world.

Long before her last visit to England, Ivy had made brief visits. In July 1930, Maxim was appointed People’s Commissar for Foreign Affairs. Soon after his promotion Ivy accompanied him to Geneva. That same winter, the Litvinovs paid a visit to London. John Carswell, then twelve years old, recalled:

“She took me to a Christmas show of which even the name now escapes me; but what is still vivid is the tall, dominating, fur-coated figure sweeping me across the wintry promenade outside the Golders Green Hippodrome, to a torrent of commentary.”

Reading about Carswell’s memory of Ivy taking him to a Christmas show at the Hippodrome reminded me of seeing pantomimes at this same theatre when I was about John’s age or maybe a year or two less. until the mid-1960s, the Hippodrome (built as a 3000-seat music hall in 1913) was a very active repertory theatre, where many plays that would eventually end up in the West End were premiered. In addition to plays, operas and Christmas pantomimes were staged there. In the 1960s, it became a BBC television studio, and lately it has become a venue for Islamic meetings. Like Carswell, I cannot remember what shows I saw there as a child, but I do remember being impressed by the size and fittings (seats arranged in galleries, boxes, and the vast stage) of the Hippodrome. It was as least as impressive as the grandest of West End theatres.

I enjoyed reading Carswell’s biography not only because it provided some insight into what life was like in the Soviet Union during Stalin’s rule but also because it introduced me to the life of an intriguing woman writer whose love for Maxim led her to spend a large part of her life in the USSR. Another thing that appealed to me is that Carswell provided me with new aspects of the history of Hampstead, a part of London which I know well and where I grew up. It is with some reluctance that I will return this enjoyable biography to our local public library.

 

 

 

 

It was not all bad in East Germany

 

For those of you who are too young to remember, Germany was divided into two separate countries, West Germany and East Germany (‘DDR’), between the end of World War 2 (‘WW2’) and 1990 (when the two countries were united into one). The DDR was a socialist republic overshadowed by the USSR.

Many years after the re-unification of Germany, our German-built Bosch dish-washing machine broke down. The engineer who came to mend it, fixed it in a couple of minutes, but remained talking to us for half an hour. He had been brought up in the DDR. He wanted to explain to us that contrary to all that we might have heard about the evils of the DDR and the difficulties its citizens faced, it was not all bad. He told us that, for example, education was good, there was little or no unemployment, and there had been a great sense of camaraderie. It was very important for our engineer that we should not think ill of the former DDR.

Recently, I finished reading an excellent book about the DDR, Red Love written by Maxim Leo and published in English in 2013. Leo was born in 1970, and like our Bosch engineer, does not damn the DDR, but takes care to point out that living in that former country was not at all easy or straightforward. For anyone curious about life in the DDR, this book is very illuminating. However, there is much more to this short book than describing the DDR.

What is most fascinating in Leo’s book is his stories about his two grandfathers, both of whom lived in the DDR. One of them remembered life being reasonable during the Nazi regime. Despite his grandson’s questioning, it is not clear what he did during those terrible times. The other grandfather led an exciting and dangerous life as a member of the French resistance during WW2. His story is gripping. 

Leo’s parents are also interestingly described. They were both in favour of, or atleast not completely against, the regime in the DDR. Each of them expressed their didfferent critical views of the political system, but neither of them did so strongly that they fell out of favour with it.

The book is a very readable translation of the original German translation. It provides a fascinating insight into life in the DDR and the period that preceded it. It was a book that I found difficult to put down, a real ‘page-turner’. Some of what I read in it chimes well with what our dish washing machine engineer told us.

The Wall

DDR

 

The Berlin Wall ceased to be a barrier between capitalist West Germany and socialist East Germany in late 1989. It marked the ending of the ‘Cold War’ and the recent collapse of the former USSR. 

At that time, my father made an interesting observation, which I want to sahre with you. He is a retired academic at the world famous London School of Economics (‘LSE’). The LSE had a large number of academics with an expert interest in politics. He told me that the end of the Cold War had come as a complete surprise to his colleagues, who professed to be experts on the subject. Not one of them had predicted either the downfall of the USSR or the ending of the Cold War. I was staggered by this information, and my faith in ‘experts’ reduced a bit.

So, now when I listen to ‘expert’ after ‘expert’ giving opinions on the outcome of ‘Brexit’ and the future of politics in the UK (or elsewhere), I take what they say with the proverbial ‘pinch of salt’.

 

Picture: The emblem of the DDR, sourced from Wikipedia